Days after the November 2016 election, a coordinator at a recycling non-profit wrote a Facebook post asking if her fellow Michigan residents were interested in coming together to “take on gerrymandering.”
Katie Fahey’s casual social media request ended up morphing into a statewide, all-volunteer movement to draft a ballot proposal to overhaul how the Great Lake State’s congressional and state legislative district lines are drawn. The push by that group, which came to be known as Voters Not Politicians, ended up gathering over 100,000 more signatures than the 316,000 needed to get the measure on Michigan’s November 2018 ballot.
Across the country, voters are engaging in similar mobilizations at the state level to take the wheel on the seemingly unsexy issue of redistricting reform. Comparable efforts to get reform measures on the ballot are underway in Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado and Utah, and Ohio will vote May 8 on a legislative-backed proposal that was spurred by grassroots activism. Good government groups are pushing legislatures in Illinois and Pennsylvania to take similar action.
The aim of the reforms: to either wrest control of the process away from partisan lawmakers and turn it over to independent arbiters, or, in some cases, to make sure maps are drawn with bipartisan consensus.
This ground-level approach bypasses the meandering pace of the courts, where gerrymandering challenges dragged on for years before landing before the Supreme Court. The justices are expected to issue a ruling on gerrymandering by June, but how far it will go to rein in the practice remains unclear. The grassroots campaigns also sideline the national partisan groups working to give their party more control of the redistricting process by winning control of key statehouses and governorships.
“People are beginning to understand that roads, hospitals, schools, everything the government provides is driven by Census data, and the legislators who represent them in state capitols and Washington — where there’s gridlock at both levels — are the result of how these lines were drawn,” Jeff Wice, a redistricting expert at the Rockefeller Institute, told TPM.
While both parties have gerrymandered when they’ve had the chance, the current crisis over district lines can be traced back to the early years of the decade. After winning control of key states in 2010, the GOP drew maps that have entrenched them in power in those states and in Congress, leading to election results that have failed to reflect the will of voters.
As this new wave of activist groups well knows, 2018 is the last election year before the 2020 Census, which will yield the data that is used to carve states up into legislative districts.
“This is the time to make those changes,” Wice said of the reform initiatives. “Not 2019 or 2020 — it will be too late.”
The next state reformers are looking to is the severely gerrymandered bellwether of Ohio.
An initiative on the ballot in May’s primary elections would require that Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature work together on new congressional maps. (Voters already approved a ballot initiative in 2015 to reform the process for drawing state legislatives districts.) If the maps don’t receive support from at least half of the minority party, they go to a commission made up of the governor, state auditor, secretary of state and two lawmakers from each political party. A majority of that commission, including the minority party members, would have to be on board for the maps to become law.
Mike Brickner, the senior policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, told TPM that the new process would make the state’s congressional delegation much more representative of the actual views of voters.
“Ohio is known as a purple state,” he said. “But, as it stands right now, and has for the past 20 years, we are a single-party state. Republicans have a supermajority in both Senate and House. So drawing the maps to be more fair and competitive and compact would certainly help to balance that out.”
Though it has stiff competition for the dubious honor, Ohio is one of the most severely gerrymandered states in the country. Maps drafted and approved solely by Republicans have been used since 2012, and not one district has flipped parties since then. In the last three elections, Republicans in Ohio have won 75 percent of the state’s U.S. House seats while winning only 56 percent of the overall vote.
Democrat Kathleen Clyde, who has served in the statehouse since 2011, is now running for Secretary of State, meaning she would serve on the commission drafting the new maps. She told TPM that she’s enthusiastic about a change that “will take some of the power away from the state legislature, which currently has sole authority over the maps with a simple majority, and is heavily rigged towards GOP.”
While Ohio’s compromise measure required working with the legislature, other states are sidestepping them entirely.
“I think the appeal of the ballot process was you don’t have to compromise on your solution,” Fahey, the founder of Voters Not Politicians, told TPM. “We can come together and have the people of state decide, not political parties, lobbyists, or anyone else.”
Under Michigan’s proposed constitutional amendment, the legislature and governor would no longer control the redistricting process. Maps would instead be drawn by a citizens’ commission composed of four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents selected at random by the secretary of state from a list of people who have applied. The commission would adhere to “accepted measures of partisan fairness” to avoid providing a “disproportionate advantage” to any one political party.
Activists in Colorado and Oklahoma are gathering signatures for measures that would institute similar independent citizen commissions. In Utah, Better Boundaries is trying to gather support for a proposal to create an advisory commission that would oversee lawmakers during the once-a-decade map drawing process.
Kathay Feng, national redistricting director at Common Cause, said that these truly independent or bipartisan, legislature-involved commissions are considered the best approach for ending up with fair maps.
“Both models have proven to be far better than our current system that relies on incumbents and partisan insiders to draw the lines,” Feng said.
Those insiders don’t tend to be keen on relinquishing control of one of their most powerful partisan tools. In Michigan, some Republicans have murmured that board members of Voters Not Politicians have donated to Democratic candidates, though in fact the group is non-partisan. State Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser accused the group of trying to turn redistricting control over to “a panel of bureaucrats.” Similar rumors have circulated about the labor-backed Clean Missouri.
“We see in every state — red, blue and purple — that whichever party is in power is always raising the claim that this is just a power grab by the losing party,” Feng said.
But Jeanette Senecal, Senior Director of Elections at the League of Women Voters, told TPM that the opposition movements have not yet begun in earnest. Opponents are likely waiting to see if citizens’ groups can garner the signatures they need, if they survive vetting by local Election Boards, and what the Supreme Court decides on the multiple redistricting cases justices are currently considering.
One argument unlikely to have much currency in the current political environment: simply smearing the redistricting ballot measures as the work of liberal activists.
“The core groups organizing petition signatures tend to be more progressive, but the folks that are signing the ballots are likely more balanced than they have been in the past,” Senecal said.
“Right now we’re at a moment in history where folks are taking a look around at how the government is functioning, and saying, ‘It’s not really working for our country,’” she continued. “‘What can we do?’”